The Corn Tortilla: Sin Maíz No Hay País

 

Mexican food has been a constant in my life, always serving as a central connection to my culture. 

Like many other Mexican-Americans, I grew up eating classic dishes such as enchiladas, tamales—from the Nahuatl word for the maize dough it is made from, “tamalli” (Hoyer)—and pozole, derived from the Nahuatl word “tlapozonalli,” meaning fluffy or frothy.

My mom’s mom, Eva, is from Juarez and was raised by a single mother who had no time to cook, much less teach her children how to cook. Eva worked in factories throughout her life and in turn, did not learn to cook until much later in life.

One of the first dishes she learned to successfully make was egg rolls, courtesy of a few Korean women she’d befriended during her time at the Heinz ketchup factory. She still brings a heaping platter of egg rolls to every family gathering, and I’m proud to say they’re delicious.

My mom sometimes recounts childhood horror stories of sad, watery spaghetti; it is this lack of good home cooking that prompted her to learn how to make Mexican food on her own.

My father’s mother, Celia, is from Aguascalientes. She was taken from her Chinese-Mexican father and grew up in a monastery. The nuns deemed her too slow to learn anything besides cooking, so instead of going to classes she learned how to make foods like mole—a family favorite—and menudo.

Growing up and devouring her food until we were too tired to fight with our cousins was a hallmark of the holidays. I remember happily slurping down bowl after bowl of menudo, and then never touching it again after I was finally told what it was. (I’m sad to say I still can’t eat it to this day, but I love my pozole rojo just fine.)

While I grew up in the majority Mexican-American city of El Paso, Texas, I was placed in advanced classes in elementary school with mainly other white students. I began to feel wrong and even inferior to most of my peers. While I grew up alongside these people, I felt a severe disconnect.

At the same time, I was too far removed to connect with the kids that were referred to as “the Spanish speakers”;  we did not have classes together, and played separately during recess. I enjoyed what my mom made at home, while at school I preferred to eat whatever was served in the cafeteria. 

Needless to say, being away from home has been especially hard in terms of missing the food. I’ve never had to hunt down good Mexican food in El Paso, while in Queens it sometimes feels like a journey to find a place with decent tacos. 

The Mexican dishes that hold the fondest memories for me tend to heavily feature corn tortillas. Childhood favorites like my mom’s delicious green enchiladas and fried tacos de papa come to mind; even the stack of corn tortillas that accompanies a hearty bowl of caldo de rez (beef soup) on a cold day, which I would tear up and dip in the broth.

I remember my sister and I getting tortilla presses for Christmas one year, wooden ones decorated in colorful flower designs. I remember watching her in the kitchen as she would actually use hers, pressing out imperfect circles of masa dough.

For me, corn tortillas entail family and an effort to hold onto traditions that tend to get lost with assimilation. So what do corn tortillas mean not only to Mexican cuisine, but Mexicans?

The History of Corn Tortillas

Corn tortillas have been a staple of Mexican food since its pre-Hispanic days. In chapter seven of their book, “Mexican-Origin Foods, Foodways, and Social Movements: Decolonial Perspectives,” Luz Calvo and Catriona Rueda Esquibel emphasize the long-lived centrality of corn (and therefore, corn tortillas) to Mexican families. They write that corn-based diets were Indigenous, while a wheat-based diet was European, with a campaign on the part of European colonizers to emphasize the supposed superiority of wheat. (128)

In order to create corn tortillas from corn, the corn must undergo a process called nixtamalization. The word comes from Nahuatl, a combination of “nextil,” meaning ashes, and “tamalli,” maize dough. The process consists of soaking and cooking corn in an alkaline solution (historically a mixture of ashes and lime were used.) Nixtamalization unlocks nutritional content in corn, and is what allows us to make tortillas from corn.

The significance of corn does not only exist in the past. Corn was domesticated in Mexico thousands of years ago, and has been a source of livelihood for many farmers. Since the passage of the North American Fair Trade Agreement in 1994, it has become significantly more difficult to make a living off of corn, driving many Mexicans to leave their families and move abroad in order for the opportunity to provide for them financially.

The saying, “sin maíz no hay pais” rings true in a modern economic sense, as well as a cultural one. Mexican culture is significantly drawn from the traditions of its numerous Indigenous groups, who have lived in the land in pre-Hispanic times and continue to live in Mexico today.

Every time I bite into a corn tortilla—whether pre-made or fresh—I’m eating the same thing my ancestors relied on as a main source of nutrition. While I may not have clear, written records about most of my ancestry, and a muddled family tree that only goes as far as my great-grandparents, I will always have this.

Los Almuerzos Mexicanos

The first time I tried Los Almuerzos Mexicanos on 138-21 Jamaica Av., I ordered their tacos al pastor. They were surprisingly good (and I only say surprisingly because even average Mexican food relatively close to campus seems too good to be true.)

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Los Almuerzos Mexicanos’ tacos al pastor, which were messy but delicious.

The problem with many of my beloved Mexican dishes is that they tend to heavily feature meat and cheese. So I decided to take a trip back to my vegetarian days, branch out from my tried-and-true tacos al pastor, and order what is on their menu as “vegetarian tacos.” I was expecting something with mushrooms, and I got chopped peppers.

I’ve had my fair share of vegetarian tacos before, usually ones that use mushroom as a meat substitute. I expected these to be much less satisfying than meat-based or mushroom-based tacos, but I was surprisingly pretty full after eating only three. The vegetables consisted of chopped red and green peppers along with onion, and were seasoned and flavorful. Along with the lime and a good helping of salsa verde, they were perfect and didn’t immediately make me want to take a three-hour nap. 

 

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Vegetable tacos, guacamole, pico de gallo, and tostadas from Los Almuerzos Mexicanos, also featuring a tamarind-flavored Jarrito.

 

 

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The hongos con cilantro tacos at Guisados, Los Angeles CA.

 

Just as bread loans its own flavor to sandwiches (yes, even Wonder Bread has a particular taste) and other dishes, corn tortillas serve as a base and essential component of any taco. Regardless of its filling, it’s the corn tortilla that makes a taco a taco.

 

Works Cited

 

Hoyer, Daniel. Tamales. Gibbs Smith, 2008.

 

O’Donnell, Jim. “What Is Posole?” Around the World in Eighty Years, 24 Oct. 2017.

 

PenÌa, Devon Gerardo, et al. Mexican-Origin Foods, Foodways, and Social     Movements: Decolonial Perspectives. The University of Arkansas, 2017.

 

“Cooking with Ashes.” Onondaga Nation, 11 Mar. 2014.

 

Darlington, Shasta, and Patrick Gillespie. “Mexican Farmer’s Daughter: NAFTA Destroyed  Us.” CNNMoney, Cable News Network, 9 Feb. 2017.